At first, her work -- primarily sculptures crafted to look like mummified human beings -- makes people uneasy. But given time with her creations, uneasiness usually changes to a combination of recognition and awe. She forces us to acknowlege and come to terms with death, an inevitability most people spend their lives denying. For Kopriva, death does not mean an end; it is life's corollary and, together, the two define human existence. As she has said about her work, "It is not intended to be a negative statement about death but an exploration of it as a form of change or transformation."2

Sources for Kopriva's work derive from many different cultures and traditions: her own Catholic upbringing, her experience of Latino and African-American culture in Houston, a fascination with ancient Egyptian rites, and the religious practices of Peruvian indigenous peoples.3 Kopriva distills and refines all these elements in the process of arriving at her own metaphysical brew.

Kopriva, of Italian-American heritage, has lived all her life in the Heights area of Houston. Her current studio, a converted laundry, is across the street from the high school that she and her husband attended.


She forces us to acknowlege and come to terms with death, an inevitability most people spend their lives denying.


After college, she taught art in secondary schools in Houston's inner-city neighborhoods. M.F.A. studies at the University of Houston brought her into contact with such mentors as John Alexander, James Surls, and, most importantly, Edward and Nancy Kienholz. But the pivotal experience for Kopriva's artistic evolution appears to have been her 1982 trip to Peru. "I left the plundered Nazca burial grounds with a different attitude toward life," she says.4 The mummies she saw, naturally desiccated by the desert climate, were a revelation. Rather than being struck by their lifelessness, she responded to their humanity. These long-dead bodies still had the power to communicate the significance of life across the barriers of time.

Kopriva was still a painter in 1982, and she did not shift her focus to sculpture until after the mid-1980s. Her signature piece in the Houston Museum's ground-breaking survey of local art in 1985, "The Bad, Ugly, Proud, and Disconcerned," was a kind of painted frieze with mixed media on canvas. It represents a transition toward a completely three-dimensional medium.


The mummies she saw, naturally desiccated by the desert climate, were a revelation . . . . These long-dead bodies still had the power to communicate the significance of life across the barriers of time.


But Kopriva's major theme was already clearly in place. A critic commented that "for all its macabre qualities, Kopriva's painting seems to make of death an extension of life."5 Another posited that her "obsession with the physical decay of the flesh leads to the contemplation of such spiritual concerns as resurrection, transmigration, and rebirth."6

During the late 1980s Kopriva perfected her sculptural technique. Combining animal bones, worn fabric, clay, wood, teeth, and papier-mâché with armatures of wood and metal, she creates the illusion of mummified human beings. These figures have such presence that they personify the actuality rather than the evanescence of death.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kopriva completed a series of figures named after Christian martyrs, including a riveting Sebastian (1986), whose body made of animal bones, sticks, and papier-mâché is meant to hang on the wall.


[Kopriva's] obsession with the physical decay of the flesh leads to the contemplation of such spiritual concerns as resurrection, transmigration, and rebirth.


Not long after the sculpture came into the possession of a young collector, he lost it in a most dramatic manner. While he was away from home, a flood caused by a broken aquarium forced the landlord, with the help of police, to break into the apartment. Confronted by the tortured figure on the wall, the police felt obliged to remove the "corpse" to the city morgue as a suspected homicide. Simple tests revealed the "body" to be mostly animal bones and papier-mâché, but the incident merited a front-page story in the Houston Post.7 It also provided a demonstration of the convincing effect of Kopriva's painstaking creations.

Perhaps the most impressive sculpture in the "Saints" series is the freestanding depiction of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake. Here we cannot mistake the release from life as a peaceful transaction; the struggle and the agony are all too painfully apparent. Yet while the body seems trapped within the crisscross structure of charred wood, there is no trapping of the nonphysical component of this transcendent being.

In addition to the series of saints, Kopriva has taken up other Catholic themes. The Confessional contains an elaborate ensemble with three seated figures. Looking as though they were just recently exhumed, the figures are united physically in a warmly illuminated, tripartite confessional. A somewhat mysterious atmosphere, made more dramatic by the light shimmering behind the veil drawn across the front, reveals the priest listening to the transgressions of one fragile, kneeling supplicant, while the other patiently awaits her turn.


Reality, remembrance, and imagination converge to challenge our fixed notions of the "here" in contrast to the hereafter.


Despite the somber look of the shriveled figures and the animal skulls above the openings, Kopriva's subtle use of lighting bathes the piece in an appealing, enchanted glow. Reality, remembrance, and imagination converge to challenge our fixed notions of the "here" in contrast to the hereafter.

Still drawing from her Catholic girlhood, Kopriva has found humor as well as seriousness in her religious experiences. The warmth, affection, and nostalgia evoked by the poignant Bench of Nuns (1991), cuddly Sister Solitaire (1993), and the nuns in In Excelsis Deo who serenade us from inside the piano -- all mummies and all on the petite side of the human scale, elaborately outfitted in traditional habits that are rarely seen these days -- charm and disarm us by their matter-of-fact accommodation with the inevitability of their mortality and physical decay.

Although Catholicism is never far from Kopriva's consciousness, much of her work derives from her knowledge of and fascination with other religious traditions. But her work is not so much informed by that knowlege as validated by it.


Although Catholicism is never far from Kopriva's consciousness, much of her work derives from her knowledge of and fascination with other religious traditions.


The effect of sculptures such as Buck (1989), Primogenitur (1992), and Horned Ceremony depends upon a collective "memory" of a prehistoric time and rituals that marked the close identification of human life with other living forms.

In "Kaleidoscope," Kopriva is represented by her masterpiece in this genre, titled Rite of Passage. A standing oarsman cloaked in gauzelike drapery steers a long, narrow vessel, aged by time and the elements. His three passengers calmly await their destination in purposeful resignation. Although the boat seems heavy with the gravity of its voyage, it is fabricated in wood of an almost ethereal lightness. Held aloft by an airy base embellished with fishnet material, it seems to glide along weightlessly. Most suggestive perhaps of the Greek and Roman mythology that describes an aqueous passage from life to the underworld of death, it is also indebted in its inspiration to elements of Egyptian theology and the religious philosopy of the ancient native cultures of Peru. It undoubtedly also resonates with similar metaphors to be found in religious traditions of many other peoples.8

According to the Roman poet Virgil, the path to the underworld "leads to where Acheron, the river of woe, pours into Cocytus, the river of lamentation. An aged boatman named Charon ferries the souls of the dead across the water to the farther bank, where stands the adamantine gate to Tartarus [the lower division of the underworld]."9


In our time, when youth means everything and rock stars plan to freeze their bodies for revival at a time of more advanced medical knowledge, it is reassuring to contemplate our fate in more poetic and metaphysical terms.


In the modern European tradition, Dante's voyage across the Stygian Marsh in The Divine Comedy and Richard Wagner's dramatization of a Nordic legend in his opera The Flying Dutchman offer other paradigmatic narratives of death and deliverance in which the transitional state is symbolized by a water passage.

In the Egyptian context, Kopriva may have thought of the boat made of papyrus reed used by the goddess Isis to travel through Egypt in search of the scattered body parts of her husband, Osiris.10 Osiris is ultimately resurrected and, for thousands of years, worshipers believed he would bring them eternal life, not so much in a physical form but in a spiritual one.11 Osiris's murderer, his brother Seth, is transformed into the boat that carries the resurrected Osiris along the Nile.12 In later Egyptian times, worship of Osiris was largely replaced by worship of Amen-Ra, who sailed the sky in a boat. Moreover, according to the lore surrounding the death and salvation of the Pharaoh, the transformation involved a boat trip conducted by a ferryman "who had the power of a judge." His passage was assured only if he could answer the ferryman's ritual questions correctly.13

The figures in Rite of Passage, however, derive not from Egyptian mummies, but from human remains found in the ancient burial grounds of Peru, near Cuzco. Speaking of the natural, unwrapped mummies, Kopriva says, "[They] were beautiful. They weren't frightening. But they make you think of your own mortality."14


We are invited to see our physical and spiritual selves as part of the cycle of human history and to trust to the imagination -- or to our own religious faith -- the rite of passage that will link us to the larger cycle of nature.


In our time, when youth means everything and rock stars plan to freeze their bodies for revival at a time of more advanced medical knowledge, it is reassuring to contemplate our fate in more poetic and metaphysical terms. Rite of Passage makes a universal statement grounded in our feelings and instincts for the rituals of the past. We are invited to see our physical and spiritual selves as part of the cycle of human history and to trust to the imagination -- or to our own religious faith -- the rite of passage that will link us to the larger cycle of nature.

Jacquelyn Days Serwer


Notes

1. Sharon Kopriva, quoted in Betty Ann Brown and Arlene Raven, Exposures: Women & Their Art (Pasadena: New Sage Press, 1990), 70.

2. Artist's statement in Susie Kalil and Barbara Rose, Fresh Paint: The Houston School (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1985), 144.

3. See Kopriva's statement in Kalil and Rose, Fresh Paint, 144, where she describes her Catholic orientation: "A firm Catholic background during my early youth had specific influences on my life. During my mandatory service in the church youth choir, our group buried enough people that I am able to this day to recite most of the Latin requiem mass from memory."

4. Ibid., 144.

5. David Bell, "Empowering Painting at the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts," Art in America (January 1987): 145.

6. Donna Tenant, "Reviews: Sharon Kopriva at Graham Gallery, Houston," Artspace (Fall 1986): 45.

7. Felix Sanchez, "'Mummy' Unwinds at Morgue," Houston Post, 15 March 1990, 1.

8. See Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), vol. I, 79, for a description of the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh and his boat trip across the Waters of Death.

9. Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1942), 39.

10. See W. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion (London and New York: Arkana, 1987), 52.

11. Ibid., p. 79.

12. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 97.

13. Ibid., 95-96.

14. Patricia Covo Johnson, "The Art of Being Contemporary, Texas, 13 November 1994, 9.